We have a common image of Western European food as bland and boring. Not spiced or subtly spiced in the hopes of bringing out a “natural” flavor or one that does not cause “excitement,” Western food is seen as nearly flavorless except in the hands of the most seasoned cooks. Many abhor it, while white nationalists and racists claim it as a heritage rather than the supposedly malodorous cuisine of “Other” groups. Even in the Jewish realm, traditional Ashkenazi food is narrated as “bland” (a patent myth). And in all this, the food of the medieval ancestors – idealized by the right, misunderstood by the left – is assumed to be much the same, save for the potato and corn from the Americas. Bland, and certainly not spicy.
But what if I was to tell you that…this was not the case? That the high cuisine of Medieval Europe more closely resembled the fragrances of Middle Eastern and Indian traditions today? That ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper permeated the tables of the wealthy? That the idealized bland cuisine of Europe would have been looked down upon by the who’s who of Medieval Europe?
For that is indeed the case.
Paul Freedman’s Out of the East: Spices in the Medieval Imagination is a revelation. The book is a holistic examination of the way that Medieval Europe was shaped and changed by the spice trade, which through circuitous means brought pepper, nutmeg, cloves, galangal and other spices from India, Indonesia, and West Africa to the (generally wealthier) tables of Europe. In Europe, a cuisine emerged of deeply spiced dishes – often referring similar ones in Muslim countries – that would resemble more closely the Indian or North African cuisine of today than any Western European forebears (save, perhaps, that of Spain). Spices touched on morality – for Protestant thinkers protested the “moral decay” spices induced – and on status – for one could show wealth with many judiciously used spices. And so too were the sweet and spicy aromas and tastes of seasonings associated with the divine – it was said that the corpses of saints smelled of cloves, as did the Garden of Eden. Indeed spices ruled the imagination – as they did politics.
Traced too are the culinary roots of modern political systems. Globalization in many ways is rooted in the spice trade that stretched to what was then the far corners of the earth, bringing cloves from Eastern Indonesia all the way to Portugal. Colonialism – and the European encounter with the New World – took off on a search for spices, and it was control over the spice trade that brought the Dutch to begin four centuries of varied power in Indonesia, culminating in colonial rule. Capitalism, in many ways, also began with the trade in spices. Though the book is about flavors of then, Freedman deftly hints at the continued consequences of the medieval hunt for certain tastes today.
Over the course of the book’s ten chapters, Freedman makes short shrift of many common myths about food and globalization. Many have always sought food from afar and to escape what Rachel Laudan poetically termed “the tyranny of the local.” To claim that today’s so-called “authentic” European cuisine has a form untouched by trade is to trade in mythmaking. Spices are proof that Europe’s food has referred to others and depended on others since ancient times, as Freedman clearly shows. In addition, European food has not always been “bland” or dependent on herbs for flavor. Once upon a time, the high cuisine of France and England was also spicy and pungent and peppery – and bland was certainly not a flavor pursued before the abnegations of the Protestant Reformation. And then there is this matter of medieval European cuisine: it was not always the same, and it was never solely rooted in Europe. What we consider modern French or European cuisine only arose in the seventeenth century, and the knights and dames of the High Middle Ages would probably feel more at home with Moroccan or Palestinian food than what white nationalists or anti-globalists seem to call their heritage today.
In a time when white supremacists seek an idealized and fake medieval “authenticity” to justify their disgusting aims, Out of the East is a reminder of a cosmopolitan medieval world. Not to say that racism didn’t exist – it certainly did, as did strange myths about the people of the lands from which spices came. Rather, it was that the knights and nobles of Europe in the Middle Ages looked far afield for inspiration, for thought, and to furnish their tables. It was not home cooking that was seen as worthy of celebration, but rather one that spoke of networks reaching across the Earth. Meanwhile, those of lower rank in the medieval hierarchy sought to imitate the elite with similar spicing – such that pepper, a plant grown in India, became common. Muslim Arabs may have been a theological opponent, but in every way the culture was dependent on them – much as we in the United States eat indigenous foods like corn and rely on immigrant labor today. Some things never change, and some things always go against nationalist histories.
What implications does this history have for discussing Jewish cuisine? Firstly, we may need to reconsider what medieval Ashkenazim considered “typical” of high Jewish cuisine. This step goes beyond remembering that potatoes only arrived in Eastern Europe in the late 18th century – rather, it indicates that what “good eating” looked like, even for the poor, was vastly different from today. The black pepper of Lithuanian Jewish cooking and the tang of many Hungarian dishes is a remnant of what once may have been a highly festive cuisine – and, if Gil Marks’ z”l research is any indication, certainly was. Secondly, we also can better understand now as well the ways in which Sephardic cuisine differs from that of Spain – in that many of the spices were kept in exile even as Spain moved on to different flavorings in the modern era. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it is a reminder that Jewish cuisine went under exactly the same influences as other cuisines – and is as much a product of trade and interchange as it is of preserved tradition.
I hate authenticity, and I especially hate it when people ask me about it. Sometimes it is in the form of a compliment – my blog is “so authentic” or has so many “authentic” recipes! Others critique me for things like having a recipe for quince jam but not one for brisket. The blog is not “authentic” enough – a coded way too often of saying “Ashkenazi” enough. And some just ask for my most “authentic” recipe. This all irritates me, because authenticity is just such a boring performance, and a race for the lowest common denominator. It is also deeply problematic and tied with the same dangerous nostalgia, even if more distantly, that got Trump elected. (Indeed, this post’s timing is not accidental.) I write this blog for good food and good history, not to make my Jewishness a product that can be certified as the most Jewish. And besides, one simple fact is at the heart of why authenticity sets my teeth on edge:
Authenticity does not make food Jewish. Please shut up about authenticity.
You speak of “authentic” Jewish food. But what makes a food Jewish? A Jewish food is nothing more than a dish or an item or an ingredient that finds itself part of the common memory of a Jewish community, tied to other parts of Jewish culture, and/or referent to the Jewish faith. It is not essentially Jewish, and it is not Jewish to the core. This could be a celebratory dish, or an ordinary dish, kosher or trefah, but it is Jewish. This definition is admittedly an uncomfortable one – I myself cannot wrap my head around any Jewish dish with bacon – but it is the closest thing to Jewish food we’ll get. Foods become Jewish – just think of Wiener Schnitzel, the German middle-class cutlet turned into Israeli street food. Foods are shared – and hence I tire of the hummus wars that are really the province of competing nationalisms skirting around the unmistakable bogeymen of foreign influence and the truly unknown. And Jewish foods become universal – which anyone who has found frozen bagels in a rural Midwestern grocery store can attest to. Authenticity is not a defining factor of the Jewishness of food, it is simply something attached to it. Maybe authenticity makes the food sell, maybe authenticity allows you to make fun of your neighbors, when it probably makes you feel better about yourself.
But here’s the thing: the only thing eating p’tcha – the Ashkenazi calf’s foot aspic – definitely does to you is it makes you someone who eats p’tcha. The dish is definitely Jewish – and if I may say, delicious – and is tied to memories of communities and is deeply tied to Jewish history. But you’re not more Jewish for eating it, and p’tcha is only authentic insofar as you ignore the Turkic origins of the aspic, or the fact that every Central European, Eastern European, and Balkan culture has some variant of chilled foot jelly: Serbian pihtije, Hungarian kocsonya, Ukrainian kholodets, Turkish soğuk paça. The authenticity is about you and what you want alone.
And, of course, authenticity is about power. Too often a complaint about authenticity is a complaint that we are not adhering to the relentless centering of Jewish narratives around a white, whitewashed Ashkenazi experience. Even in rebellion – be it in Yiddishism or Zionism – the focus on the “authentic” is still, despite other value, a focus on that which can be performed as European. And, despite the ravages of the Israeli state on Yiddish culture or the very real anti-Semitism here, Ashkenazi culture still benefits from power within the Jewish world. So authenticity becomes a gatekeeper – such that an African-American Jew’s perfectly delicious and perfectly Jewish, not to mention perfectly heimish, collard greens for Shabbat are simply “not authentic.” Is it really that something prepared for the honor of Shabbat is not authentic? Or is it not the Jewishness we think should be performed?
Besides, authenticity makes for terrible Jewish cooking and terrible Jewish history. I have already outlined why this is terrible Jewish history, but I would also wager that our ancestors in Vilnius, Cordoba, and Baghdad would laugh to the point of wheezing at their descendants’ obsession and puritanical concern for the authentic. Jewish cooking has always been enriched by their neighbors’, simply because you only got to eat a lot of that food a few times a year. Until recently, food was drab and grim for most people most of the time, even if wondrous preserved foods could sustain communities for months. Exotic ingredients from afar and new techniques closer to home not only promised honor to the festivals and occasions that meant eating well, but new ways to nourish appetites long since tired of “ordinary food.” Authenticity, to eat only what your group produced, to fit 19th-century boxes of Nation and Folk, was so anachronistic. Mixing and matching within the bounds of kashrut were the mark of eating Jewishly, and eating well.
Jews have always skirted the boxes of nation, ethnicity, and religion: we are an entity that defies easy categorization. Zionism sought to fit us into the box of nation, Bundism into ethnicity, the Ottoman millet system into religion. All have failed to capture, though, the fact that Jews and Jewish culture are defined in an ever-evolving dialogue, and that extends to food as well. To firmly establish Jewish cuisine as a set table is to declare that we are what precisely we are not. We also defy authenticity, and that is something to take pride in. This fact, perhaps, hearkens back to why precisely 19th-century European nationalists were so frightened by Jews: that we made short shrift of every romantic narrative attached to material culture. That includes food – our tables have always been shared.
A lot of the food I make on this blog, and will continue to make, happens to be “authentic.” But there is nothing authentic about this blog. I insist on a Jewish food history that recognizes where we have borrowed and learned from our neighbors, and recognizes where we have taught them. You cannot begin to narrate the history of Jewish food without the borrowing, and we also gave many things to our Gentile compatriots – recipes for duck in Poland, fennel and coffee in Italy, or slow-cooked stews in Spain. Our concern about authenticity is that we do not look like any of the other false nationalisms with the fake authentic cuisine. And that’s a beautiful thing. We have defied boxes ever since someone tried to make them. I will make hamantaschen and I will fill them with heretical sprinkles, and they will be just as Jewish. Authenticity is about insecurity, but not Jewishness. Authenticity is about whiteness and class, but not Jewishness. Authenticity is about fitting us into a box. I intend on cooking Jewishly, and whiteness and insecurity should not be celebrated parts of Jewish life. And I will not place Jewish food into a box.
We do not need to “make Jewish food great again.” We need to resist Trumpism and keep eating Jewishly, whatever that means to us. To make Jewish food about authenticity is to fall into the same trap that got us into Trump, that got us into a violent state in Israel, that got us into so much acrimony in the Jewish community: it’s about your whiteness or power or insecurity. And not about the fact that authenticity is really a bullshit concept that is too often used to excuse terrible cooking. Cook to eat and if you can, cook to eat well. Food should feed your body and soul, not build walls. And Jewish food can do so much better than build walls – it feeds a group that has defied all the walls yet built around it.
Read the first part of the herring series here, and the Chopped Herring (Forshmak) recipe here.
I’m wary of particularism, and particularly when it’s seasoning my food – ironic, perhaps, for an ethnic food blogger. And yet in Jewish cuisine we are plagued with the particular: this is Jewish, that is “authentic,” yet something else is a sign of “assimilation.” Any Google search can return you blog after tweet after article with this hackneyed approach to food. And in all this herring is a token of an idealized past – a lieu de mémoire that takes one back to a time when “Jews ate Jewish food, and that food was herring, and people cared about our heritage.” (I paraphrase here this rendition of history that is unapologetically centered on Ashkenazim.) Herring is “special” and “Jewish,” even if the Lithuanian and Polish jars of pickled herring taste pretty much just the same as the “Jewish” ones. What is with this search for purity and authenticity in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, made manifest in herring? It cannot just be the ghost of the fear of “assimilation” – as we happily buy into the ideas of “nation” and “heritage” Christian Europe pushes on our own myriad uses of the terms. There’s something – in the sense of Pierre Bourdieu – of trying to prove one’s status as a better Jew by showing that one’s tastes are more correct, more pure. But to do that nebulous task with herring?
Herring is proof that Jewish cuisine is anything but pure.
After all, this little fish is the one that “globalized” Northern Europe before “globalization.” Herring had been consumed on the shores of the North Atlantic and Baltic since time immemorial; by the ninth century CE, when records mention herring as an important foodstuff in today’s Norway, the fish was already locally pickled and traded around the Baltic. Around this time herring was a common food for Jewish and Gentile communities in today’s Germany, and was a staple food in Scotland and what is now Lithuania. (Pacific herring was heavily consumed in Japan and native North America, but the pre-modern herring cultures there merit separate discussions.) But at a certain point, more was needed: herring migrate long distances and often quite suddenly, and close-to-shore fishing no longer provided adequate supplies. At the same time, pickling and salting methods had improved such that the fish could now be kept for a long time, for lengthy distances of travel.
Thus herring – known as “silver darlings” in later years for their high value – quickly became a valued trading commodity: fish were brought in from the high seas, pickled, and then sold at massive markets in Europe’s fast-growing medieval hubs. Herring was one of the many commodities that fueled the medieval economies of cities like Bruges, Bergen, Riga, and London. In fact, herring was one of the main items traded within the Hanseatic League after that confederation of merchant guilds and towns was founded in 1358 – and the bounds of the League closely matched Europe’s herring capitals of the day. In later years, the development by Dutch sailors of shipboard fish preservation – and the spread of that technique across Northern Europe – again propelled herring as a commodity in the 17th century. Its quantity and cheapness also allowed the fish – highly profitable for its procurers – to become popular as a staple food across Northern Europe, from Northern France to Russia. More grimly, British colonists included the fish as part of rations for enslaved Africans – which is partly why herring remains part of local cuisine in Jamaica today. (Though a Briton might have consumed herring at home, the performances of colonial rule and domination – and wealth as a colonist – meant he was less likely to do so abroad, and more likely to eat meat.) Meanwhile, trading networks dedicated to the fish had developed in Europe, which brought herring from ships through port and market towns to tables across the class spectrum in early modern Europe. Much of Europe’s poor – especially Jewish – became particularly dependent on herring, especially in Poland, Germany, Lithuania, Scandinavia, and Scotland. Meanwhile, movements across the continent – including the Ashkenazi Jewish migration from Germany into Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary in the 13th century, later German movements to the east Baltic coast, and the 17th-century Swedish imperial expansion – also brought new preparations of herring to those areas – and expanded the trade connections around the fish.
Jews were at the center of these trading networks – we were part and parcel of what made herring happen. Let’s start in Amsterdam – where this very “Ashkenazi” fish was traded by Sephardi Jews from their arrival in the Netherlands in the 16th century. By the 17th century, when Amsterdam was the major center for fish and pretty much everything else, several Sephardic families had become vastly wealthy through trading fish – though, at least in the Netherlands, few of a largely urban Jewish community became fishermen themselves. Many wealthy Ashkenazi families in Germany had themselves become rich from trading herring in Hamburg and Bremen. Further afield and of more modest means, salesmen and peddlers traded and moved barrels across the European continent, to Lithuania and Poland, the heartland of Ashkenazi Jewry (and herring), France, and elsewhere. Some of the first Jewish settlers in cities previously banned to Jews – such as Stockholm and Norrköping in Sweden – were herring merchants, as were some of the first Jews to arrive in England after readmission in the 17th century. As the herring industry and fishery continued apace in the 18th and 19th centuries, so did Jewish involvement – especially after “emancipation” in the early 19th century in many European states. Many of the first Jews to arrive in the Scottish Highlands, Iceland, Norway, and Finland had some connection to herring. But it was hardly Jews alone who were growing in terms of herring.
Jews were involved at all points in this process, but were especially active in the preservation and distribution of the fish – which still played a key part in the diet of the poor Jewry of Eastern Europe. Many families depended on herring beyond nutrition – including Marc Chagall’s, whose father sold herring in Vitebsk. Yet as much as herring was Jewish, herring was also part of a huge economy. Such was the size and importance of herring as a fish that Iceland’s industrialization, urbanization, and independence was largely fueled by the herring and cod fisheries of the country. Even today, much of the country’s infrastructure dates from the days when that infrastructure was needed … for fish. And no doubt some of that herring ended up “Jewish.” Meanwhile a similar, also-Jewish-influenced herring industry grew in Seattle and Alaska on the bones of thousands of years of Salish and Tlingit fishing for the slightly different Pacific herring. Some of that herring certainly also ended up “Jewish,” in San Francisco and New York.
And much of what we know as “Jewish herring” – and cuisine, for that matter – comes from the contacts we facilitated or were introduced to during these heady centuries. Take herring in cream sauce – a “classic Jewish” preparation for the fish, with sour cream mixed into the pickling. Its origin? Sweden – and not a moment of Jewish ingenuity. This recipe was possibly introduced to Ashkenazi Jews during the Swedish invasion of Lithuania and Poland – an event that also marked a downturn for tolerance of Jews in Poland. Later Jewish tables were then dependent on a herring industry by and large not dependent on Jewish labor; from that industry, recipes were also taken – for example, herrings with mustard or herrings with juniper berries. Even the very basic ingredients of the herring’s pickling reflected surrounding environments – such as the increasingly sweet herrings of Poland after the sugar-beet industry took off there in the 19th century. And well – though we adjusted, redid, and reworked herring – the very fact we eat the fish has plenty to do with our non-Jewish neighbors. There was no forshmak in the Mishkan.
In turn Jews left, through herring, an indelible mark on the tastes of Europe. In some cases, the tastes were a direct contribution: for example, forshmak is served in Finland and Estonia in local renditions of the Jewish chopped herring that are very much not kosher. Meanwhile, herring is prepared with Jewish recipes by Christian Russians and Ukrainians to this day, and were popular during the Soviet Union. Yet in other cases the mere presence of herring on the menu owes a lot to the Jewish trading networks that brought this cheap, pickled commodity inland – and kept it there. How else would the sea-bound herring have then ended up deep in the landlocked countryside around Minsk? Or the favored garlic of Ashkenazi cuisine in herring dishes across Eastern Europe? The entire industry depended on Jews; even after the ravages of the Holocaust, our tastes still linger across the region. Just as “authentic” Jewish cuisine is impossible without the Swedes, so too “authentic” Lithuanian silke is nothing without the Jews.
Herring is a reminder that particularism never quite captures either the cosmopolitan majesty of Jewish history, nor the complexity of the context that inevitably surrounds it. Our tastes are not just shaped by halakha and tradition, authenticity and some “Yiddish” je ne sais quoi: they are inseparable from the Swedish military exploits of the 17th century, the herring factories of Iceland and Scotland, Russian appetites, and the spices brought by Dutch and Portuguese traders through Sephardi warehouses. Without any of these factors Jewish herring is not what it is: an element is missing, but so is the Jewishness. After all, we took in all these influences and combined them for hundreds of years – just as we did other things – taking us far from the idealized purity of yore that never quite existed. And certainly not in our barrels of fish.
“The barrel always smells of herring.” – A French proverb about how a person’s origins are never forgotten
I grew up with herring. I’m not saying this to be a snob or prove my authenticity. I say this because pickled herring was constantly present in the house where I grew up. I was introduced as a young child to herring by my South African grandfather, who would stay with us for two months a year in our house in New York. He ate pickled herring almost every day for breakfast at the time – and he still, at 94, enjoys all forms of pickled or salted herring immensely. So by the age of six, I was hooked on pickled herring – be it with dill, cream sauce, “wine sauce,” or juniper berries. (As I wrote for Roads and Kingdoms, herring anywhere can send me back to my childhood.) My grandparents did not have to be present for herring either – my mother constantly kept pickled herring in the refrigerator. This was partly because she herself enjoyed the saltier varieties of herring on a sandwich. In addition, guests were often served, especially on Jewish holidays, a forshpizer of chopped herring – the leftovers of which were happily consumed by someone in the family. By the time I left for college, I had an insatiable and very homely love of pickled fish. One could say this was unusual for my generation – unless I had, like so many of my fellow hipsters, been introduced to herring at IKEA or a modern Jewish deli. (The former is not bad, the latter often does well too.) But one could also say that having grown up in New York, undoubtedly the preserved fish capital of North America – that it was destined to happen.
For many New Yorkers of all faiths, herring is a Jewish food. The city was introduced to pickled herring first by the Dutch colonists and Scottish and Irish migrants, but the most common forms of pickled herring today are those that Eastern European Jews brought with them from Poland and Lithuania in the late 19th century along with techniques for smoking fish, uses of fish, and myriad preparations of river fish. Today, shops like Russ and Daughters and Raskin’s do brisk business with a Jewish clientele seeking pickled herring, and most supermarkets with a large Jewish clientele carry at least a few brands of mass-market pickled herring. Herring is remembered by many Ashkenazi Jews as a mark of some bygone era of proper Judaism – or as a taste of a now-dying generation. Others use herring to prove their adherence to either Orthodox authenticity or a vaguely-shaped idea of Ashkenazi or “Yiddish” culture (which are sometimes combined). Meanwhile, the great Nordic obsession of the 21st-century Anglo-American bourgeoisie has catapulted the herring – also a food of “ordinary” Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Icelanders – into the realm of “gourmet” cuisine. You can now spend too much money on “Scandinavian” or “Jewish” herrings at the chic boutiques of SoHo and the Upper East Side. Herring is Jewish and homely and Scandinavian and haute cuisine all at the same time. And by some, it is loved.
We forget – I too forget – in these reveries that herring was once an oft-maligned food of poverty. In Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries – and far before that – herring, salted or pickled, was the everyday staple of the Ashkenazi working and peasant classes. It was cheap – incredibly cheap, as it was fished, preserved, and shipped in huge quantities for the day. It was readily available and filling. And, it was consumed by pretty much everyone in much of the region – herring was a common protein source for Jews and non-Jews alike in Lithuania, Poland, and Germany. As documented by Michael Wex, Gil Marks, and Claudia Roden separately, a fairly typical meal for a Jew in late 19th-century Lithuania – be he in a yeshiva, working at a factory, or at a shop – would have been a piece of herring on black bread. The fish was so common that the Latvian-born British Jewish columnist Chaim Bermant described the diet of his childhood as such: “On Sunday, one had a pickled herring, on Monday soused herring, on Wednesday baked herring, on Thursday herring fried in oatmeal and on Friday herring with sour cream.” Herring was so common as to almost be hated by many who ate it every day. Meat was the luxury that was craved, as one Yiddish-language song opines, by those who only had “a spoiled little herring.” That said, herring also tied Ashkenazi Jewry to a wider world that spanned the Baltic and North Atlantic – an entire economy based on herring and cod, and a network of cultural influence from northern Iceland to Russia closely paralleled by the fish. (This world was brilliantly documented by Douglas Murray in his recent book Herring Tales.) Thousands of Jews across Baltic Europe, and in England, the Netherlands, and France, were also employed by the herring industry, including the father of the Lithuanian Jewish artist Marc Chagall. Herring was, for many, the food on the table and what put food on the table.
I’ll discuss global herring and the herring economy in a later post. For now, let us return to the United States and Canada, where memories and tastes shifted. Firstly, tastes shifted away from herring and foods like it. In the years after World War II, increasingly prosperous Ashkenazi Jews assimilated both into whiteness and “middle-class values” in America and the food habits and tastes of their Christian neighbors. Herring – that sour, fishy, smelly food of poverty and un-Americanness, was out, canned pears and mayonnaise were in. But then herring became stylish. Firstly, the increasing fascination with new flavors by the post-hippie yuppies of the 1980’s soon expanded beyond spicy and savory to the pickled – exactly where herring sat. Then there was the fact that Scandinavian products – including herring – became an increasing marker of class status in the late 20th century. Professionals who bought Scandinavian furniture and worshipped “Swedish design” also became interested in the herring sandwiches that fed the architects of Göteborg and Norrköping. These expanded tastes showed what Pierre Bourdieu would consider a marker of elite status, a proof of high social and economic capital that was a far cry from herring’s proletarian origins. Meanwhile, a new generation of Ashkenazi Jews, became interested in the food of their own ancestors and that of their Sephardi brothers and in other aspects of their heritage like Yiddish – encouraged, of course, by the increasing commodification and celebration of heritage in the 1980’s and 1990’s – became enamored of herring as well. In addition, in a time when the tastes of Jews in the US had shifted – both to new spices and flavors and to the mainstream sweet and bland flavors of white America, herring also provided access to a memory of the “good old days” for those disturbed by the change. Russ and Daughters was now not just an excellent place for pickled fish, but the preserved proof of a “more Jewish” time on a changing (and less white) Lower East Side. Of course, some Jews – Haredim, South Africans, and an older generation – had never stopped eating herring in the first place – or doing any of the other things a generation curious as to what it considered “authentically Jewish” (read: “Ashkenazi”).
Finally, the large-scale migration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to the United States and Canada also changed the perceptions and memories of herring. Herring – selyodka – had remained on the menu in the USSR, and Russian-speaking Jews brought their pickled herrings with them as they moved to New York, Toronto, Montréal, and Chicago. So now, there is also a whole other Jewish communal memory associated with herring – not the Yiddish yesteryear, but that of a Russian Jewish memory shaped by seven decades of novy byt.
I wondered as a child why most of my other friends were not fond of herring. To a certain extent, the tart and fishy pickled herring is – was – for many of their palates a very foreign tastes. As I had noted, tastes in North America had shifted as Ashkenazi Jews largely assimilated into whiteness – which themselves were changing in what they ate and how they ate it. As Bee Wilson in First Bite and Donna Gabaccia in We Are What We Eat have written, flavor preferences in North America and Europe, led by the restaurant and food manufacturing industries, have largely centered around a trifecta of sweet, fatty, and salty flavors in the past fifty years. These tastes – along with social cues that I discussed in a post about Arab desserts – play heavy roles in everything from the flavors of a child’s first foods – formula, baby food, and “kid food” like chicken nuggets and children’s cereal – to the hip foods their parents may eat in wealthy neighborhoods. It is into this context, as Avery Robinson has noted in his work on kugel and “Jewish American foodways,” that North American Jews, their tastes, and their idea of “good Jewish food” have been assimilated. So the tart-sour, fishy-briny taste of pickled herring would be well outside this flavor profile. Perhaps – though South African Jews are very assimilated themselves in terms of food – it is my South African parents that introduced me to herring. Perhaps I was just an unusual child. The most likely thing is that I was simply introduced very early. Now, as more of my friends come to like pickled herring, the dish is used to recall not a simpler time, but rather one of different tastes.
But herring, as you may realize, is also mobilized as a mark of authenticity and continuation – in a manner I’d rather eschew. I’ve seen a few Jews discuss how they are sad “no one eats herring anymore” or claim that they are doing Judaism properly or more authentically by eating herring. This idea, of realness, is rooted in a nostalgia that the theorist Svetlana Boym noted has a habit of “colonizing the present.” This authenticity, rooted in nostalgia, does exactly that – more so than anything truly reflective of the material past. Yes, herring is traditional in Ashkenazi communities. Yes, herring has great symbolism in our culture. But eating herring doesn’t make you any more Jewish than the person who doesn’t eat it, nor is it more right than say, only eating your fish “on sushi or a bagel.” Eat herring because you enjoy it, because you want it, and share it with your friends as something to enjoy and want, not to perform your superior authenticity to address your own insecurity at something we Jews all feel bad at doing: being Jewish. Besides, let’s not forget that for generations those “authentic” ancestors you seek to ape, those “real” Jews, were often quite keen to swap herring for canned tuna and rye bread for Wonder Bread. Or that the herring they preferred may well have been sourer and fishier than the one you do. (We are also affected by changing tastes.) What you remember when you eat herring – like what I remember – is always a “colonization of the present.”
How do we remember our humble little fish? For some, it is the food that fueled Ashkenazi Jews in the past in di alter heim – “the old country,” and a reminder of a lost taste palate or an authentic culture. For others, as it might be for me, a taste of childhood in New York or Moscow. And for others a reminder of our complex statuses as Ashkenazi Jews in North America – assimilated and not. It can be all of these or none of these. And what is forgotten when we remember is just as important – whether it is the crushing poverty that most Jews in Eastern Europe faced, the headlong rush into white Americanness the “authentic” Yiddish-speaking generation of grandparents encouraged and initiated (including the change of tastes!), the class dynamics of eating the “authentic” version an often pricy pickled delicacy, or the simple fact that in a sweet-fatty world, the tart-fishy pickled herring has a different place.
And as we remember herring, we keep eating it. At least I do.
So yours truly got featured on an incredible blog by Anny Gaul, Kitchening Modernity in North Africa. The wonderful blog – which discusses class, globalization, and food habits in the middle class of the Arab world – wrote a very flattering and intellectually stimulating response piece to my earlier piece about qatayef and how we discuss the sweetness of Arab and Sephardi desserts. Gaul brought up some really incredible points in light of her own doctoral work – and cited the late, great Sidney Mintz in regards to how sugar itself became woven into domestic “normalcy” through empire, and Krishnendu Ray’s new book on how race and class mediate the hierarchy of tastes today.
Check out the post, but also read the entire blog. There are some really wonderful discussions about: how we gender or don’t gender domesticity; how coffee contributes to a culture of timekeeping; how people in Morocco, Egypt, and Lebanon actually perceive globalization and food tastes; and how food changes with class, wealth, and Westernization. Check it out!
The incredible Michael Twitty of Afroculinariaand “KosherSoul” fame recently posted what might be my favorite “fusion” recipe of 2016 – macaroni and cheese kugel. The recipe – which combines the African-American macaroni and cheese with the sweet flavors of an Ashkenazi noodle kugel – looks incredible, and despite the initial confusion (cinnamon and savory cheese?!?), very tasty. Twitty’s post is also worth a read for an important lesson on the origins of macaroni and cheese – as a dish made by black slaves for white tables, with a discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s slave cook James Hemings. Take a look (and make the recipe).
Michael Twitty’s encyclopedic historical cookbook of African-American Southern cuisine, The Cooking Gene, is coming out in November. You can pre-order it on HarperCollins’ website, linked below.
Finally – as I’ve promised back in April and on Flavors of Diaspora’s Facebook page, there will be a herring series! The next few posts will be about herring, particularly pickled and salted, which has played a major role in Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine for centuries. The posts will discuss memory and history, but also provide a few recipes with herring. Your humble author also loves pickled herring with a passion, and has written two pieces with herring themes, for New Voices Magazine and Roads and Kingdoms. Check them out:
Nota bene: this post takes a more academic turn than past posts.
This post starts because I wanted to make qatayef for Shavuot. (Sadly, I ran out of time before the holiday to make them.) Qatayef are pancakes, filled with sweet white cheese or walnuts, which are then fried and served with a rosewater-infused syrup. They are native to the Levant – Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine – and are frequently served both for Ramadan, which is currently occurring, and by Syrian Jews for Shavuot. Qatayef are extremely popular in Arab communities around the world, and new types of the pastry are constantly created – for example, filled with Nutella. Like their Muslim and Christian neighbors, Jewish communities from Syria served them for festivals for centuries, and continue to do so in diaspora. The cheese variety is considered a specialty of Shavuot, and other Jewish communities have since taken on to eating them. When Shavuot coincides with Ramadan, as it does this year, one could also say it is qatayef season. Indeed, who would not want a season of delicious, spongey dough filled with luscious cheese and nuts, with the sugary taste of syrup dancing on your tongue?
In case you couldn’t tell, I personally think qatayef are awesome.
While looking up recipes for qatayef – which are also called atayef or ataif, I recalled the prior times I had eaten them: most notably, one time in an overheated Syrian pastry shop in Queens. I had been with an Ashkenazi Israeli acquaintance, who waved his hand dismissively as he told me “all these Arab and Sephardi pastries are far too sweet.” And indeed, I had heard many Ashkenazim claim that the traditional desserts of the Middle East, or North Africa, or the Balkans, and the sweets of the Jews of these regions were all a tad more sugary than tasteful. “Cloying.” “Intoxicating.” “Too sweet.”
“Too sweet,” you say?
Okay, let’s back up here for a moment. “Too sweet” from Ashkenazim is kind of cute in a quaint and awkward way, given that we serve things like taiglach, little pastries that are literally doused and boiled in honey. I hate taiglach with a burning and fiery passion, but among things that I like from the Ashkenazi tradition, we find macaroons exploding with sugar, hamantashen stuffed with ever-sweeter fillings, and sour cream cakes that seem to have an expanding sugar topping as the years go by. You get the idea: we can be “too sweet.” That said, white Gentiles have also called our sweets “too sweet.” (And the food other things – this will be in two or three posts’ time.) This is also supremely awkward and tragically quaint. Let us not forget that White Middle America serves the dessert salad, which may even contain combinations of Cool Whip, Snickers bars, and Jell-O. Meanwhile, élite coastal America has gone on a juice craze in which ever-sweeter, ever-more-sugary drinks substitute for solid foods. Who has an oversized sweet tooth now?
To be fair, we shouldn’t be shaming people for having a sweet tooth. But the “proper amount of sweetness” – and whose food is “too sweet” – is always a very political determination. Just as Ashkenazim, who hold power and privilege in Israel, deemed Mizrahi food to be “too spicy” or “too peppery” in the 1950s, so too have other foods of the non-elite been called too extreme in flavor. The food of “Russians” (also Ashkenazi!) was too salty, the food of “Arabs” too fatty, the food of the Yemenites “too pungent.” And the sweets like qatayef, of course, were far too extremely sweet – or so it was said – for the Ashkenazi tongue. This is akin, as I noted above, to how Ashkenazi sweets (and sour foods too!) were held in low regard by American “reformers” in the early 20th century, or how the food of the black working class is considered “too fatty” or “too sweet” by the white middle class here in the United States. Sweetness is always political.
But sweetness is also a way of showing “good taste.” After all, “taste” is about status at the end of the day – as the French social theorist Pierre Bourdieu noted, “taste” and “knowledge” are the cornerstones of marking oneself as “elite.” So too – as Bourdieu himself noted, famously in his chart of the food space, that certain tastes showed more knowledge of food, more cultural and economic capital, and thus higher status. It is the same with sweetness in the Jewish world – a certain type of sweetness is othered and ethnicized as “Mizrahi” and “lower-class,” but that same “natural-sweetness” can be celebrated in an “Ashkenazi” or “elite” dessert. (Apply as you will to other ethnocultural contexts.) At the same time, it is also reversed: the love of something exotic and recherché, (which is for many folks Mizrahi and Arab sweets!) can also show higher-status standing whilst sticking with “traditional” or more well-known foods shows a lack of “cultural capital.” One interesting consequence of multiculturalism is that “knowing” an “exotic” dish – itself a deeply politically loaded term – can score you status points even as its key flavorings are dismissed as “bad taste” in the cultural economy. It is a show of high cultural and economic status to “know” and even be at ease– and I borrow Shamus Khan’s use of “ease” here – with the sweetness of a dessert, but at the same time be able to declare it “too sugary.” So it is good taste to know qatayef, but it is also good taste to recoil at the joyous sweetness it brings.
Whose “sweet” is “too sweet?” This, I have demonstrated, is as much a question of social status as it is of physical taste and ideologies of “what is good for you.” It is also perhaps biological – as Bee Wilson noted in her book First Bite, many of the base limits of our tastes are dependent on what we eat in early childhood. That might limit some of the kinds of sweetness we like, but it does not change the politics of how we express it. When qatayef and kanafehand baklavaare dismissed as too sweet in a Jewish context, it is inflected with a context that is not quite as present for other foods.
Permit me an anecdote: a few weeks after the qatayef incident, the same friend who called them “too sweet” brought me two macaronsfrom a well-known bakery. At the time, white-collar New York was in the midst of a macaron craze – everyone, it seemed, wanted an airy almond-meringue cookie with different “elegant” flavorings. The macaron was “classy.” It was recherché. It was more “elegant” and “refined” than a chocolate chip cookie. I’d had a macaron or two before – they were fine. These macarons were supposed to be “the real deal,’ though. I took one bite and…the sugar rush went straight to my head in a way it did not for qatayef, or brownies, or jams. It was so sweet. I did not say anything – it would be rude to turn down such an expensive gift – but I silently cringed as I finished the two macarons. I wonder now: would the declaration “macarons are too sweet” be taken as axiomatic as it is for qatayef or any Arab or Arab-Jewish confections?
The moral? Let people have their tastes, but also recognize that tastes are always socially inflected. So when we say that a group’s desserts are “too sweet,” do we mean only that they are too sweet? No, because if the sweets are from a community that we have power over – Mizrahim for Ashkenazim, Arabs for Ashkenazi Jews in Israel, Jews and Arabs alike for White Gentiles in America – is it also a reflection that we have been taught, our tastes have been primed to find those things distastefully sweet. And part of unlearning that is to celebrate different tastes, but some of it is also to find where our own, in their power, can be critiqued.
And in all this we should leave the qatayef in their proper place. Which is preferably within our easy reach.
So I have a thing for old cookbooks. Take me to a used bookshop and the first things I look for are old cookbooks. And maps, but that’s another story for another time. The biggest Jewish cultural event for me this fall was neither Matisyahu’s frumspringa nor Netanyahu’s Hitler gaffe, but rather the release of Eve Jochnowitz’s brilliant translation of a 1938 vegetarian, Yiddish cookbook by Fania Lewando. One of my most treasured family heirlooms is my maternal grandmother’s neatly-typed cookbook of her pantheon of recipes, and I’ve lovingly leafed through my other grandmother’s stack of aging, 1950’s “Jewish” cookbooks.
So, understandably, I was excited to find one day during my lunch break at work a fully digitized kosher cookbook from 1874! An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles, by Estrella Atrutel, is not only free for your perusal online, but also a stunning time capsule into what might have been laid on the table for a wealthy Anglo-Jewish family in Victorian England. It is not only filled with detailed recipes that would have required lengthy, mostly female, and probably employed labor to make, but also has lines such as “send to the table” and requirements for all manner of fancy cooking implements. (That said, so do today’s cookbooks. Who among ye has a strawberry huller?)
Browsing through the cookbook, one who is familiar with the mostly Ashkenazi, heavily kitschified notion of “Jewish food” would be surprised. One sees nary a recipe for lokshen kugel and the German kleis rather than kneidlach.P’tcha appears, but as an aspic, and carp meets its fate soused rather than as gefilte fish. Instead, one sees renditions of French and British cuisine, much like the rest of wealthy Europe at this time: you have “Butter Cressy Soup” and sole à la Normande and charlottes, and of course the more unusual Brains Omelets (exactly what it sounds like) and Mock Turtle Soup. While there are the “Jewish” things here and there –fried fish and my beloved quince jam, both brought to England by Sephardic immigrants, have cameo appearances – it seems to a casual reader that Anglo-Jewry was trying to cook in a most “European” fashion. Which was totally true.
Let us not forget that upper-crust Anglo-Jewry wanted to be, well, English upper-class. In a day and age where knowing what is “authentic” acts as a marker of upper-class status, and the performance of “true” ethnic identity is celebrated and guarded, it is difficult to recall that for much of Jewish history – and even, especially in the State of Israel – “authenticity” was definitely neither sought nor celebrated. Today, people send their children to prohibitively expensive day schools and serve “long lost” Jewish dishes at their Shabbat tables. But in the 1870’s, a well-off Jewish family sought instead to reflect the English upper-class culture they sought to enter: schooling in the Western tradition, dishes more or less close to haute cuisine française, and certainly not speaking such “dialects” as Ladino or Yiddish. Men wore top hats, women the fashion of the day. And, as I have amply noted, this extended to the dinner table: because part of being like the upper crust was eating like (and sometimes, just eating) the upper crust.
So dishes like a baked apple pudding meant more than simply something delicious: it was part and parcel of a nexus of class and ethnicity that was performed. Of course, baked apple dishes have a long tradition in Jewish cooking. Apple cake has been a traditional Rosh Hashanah dish for centuries, as have been baked apples in some communities. (Both became even more popular in the United States.) So an apple pudding was not “out of tradition.” But it also was part of cooking and eating as similarly to the then – and still – very anti-Semitic English upper class as possible. You could be rich and white and British, but kosher and Jewish and “traditional” all at the same time. Many tried this: not just in England, but in America, in South Africa, in France, and elsewhere. This sort of recipe is as reflective of Jewish history as are the “authentic” apple cakes andtaiglach – which, as I continue to note on this blog, were also once considered to be newfangled and foreign.
Two friends and I decided to try the recipe out ourselves one day. We converted the weight measurements to cups and teaspoons, acquired the ingredients, guessed the oven temperature, and set about our task. We did elect to swap out the suet – beef fat – for butter, especially since kosher suet is rather pricy. By and large, the recipe worked in terms of taste – we got an apple pudding that was certainly nice to eat. But the recipe was also…well, weird. We realized we had too much apple filling for not enough dough – we got one and two-thirds layers of dough, rather than the promised four. Not to mention that the apple filling, though good, was…lemony. Very, very lemony. Very, very, very lemony. Some of it, perhaps, may have been taste. Yet I think there was another fact at work.
This is the hazard of converting the cryptic and sometimes jarring guesswork of the past. What counts as a “good size” apple in 1874 is different from one today, and the instruments of cooking change. What, for example, is a “pudding basin?” But more importantly, it also demonstrates how cooking by “eye” can be so temporally and geographically inflected. I pride myself on cooking by “eye” and “knowing” when things are done. So did Estella Atrutel – all of her recipes assume a basic knowledge of cooking and food. Yet it is when we communicate these ideas to others that something can get lost across time, across space, across assumptions. I mean, the English upper-class might have actively prized rather than enjoyed lemony, lemony, lemony apples. On the other hand, I wonder if Mrs. Atrutel could cook a shakshouka or Jerusalem kugel from my directions.
I made the recipe again, with a few adjustments. In order to counteract the overwhelming flavor of lemon, I reduced the lemon peel to a fraction of the original recipe. Meanwhile, I expanded the dough to reflect the fact that our apples today are far larger than those in Atrutel’s, and to have the same alternation that she did. I also added a touch of salt to the dough – it adds a tang that pairs nicely with the sweet, lemony apples. Finally, this recipe is dairy, whereas Atrutel’s original was made with suet and was thus “meat.” Bake and enjoy!
Baked Apple Pudding
Based on a recipe by Estella Atrutel printed in 1874 in An Easy and Economical Book of Jewish Cookery, Under Strictly Orthodox Principles
Adjusted to an American kitchen in the 2010s.
2 cups white, sifted flour
8 oz (one stick) butter, softened
1 ½ tsp salt
1 ½ tsp granulated sugar
3 medium-sized Granny Smith apples, cored and diced (you can also peel them)
¼ cup raisins
Zest of one lemon
1 cup brown sugar
1 ½ tsp ground cinnamon
Butter, to grease the pan
Brown sugar and ground cinnamon, for the bottom of the pan
Optional: ¼ cup slivered almonds
Put the apples, raisins, spices, and lemon zest in a pan. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Cook until the apples are soft and the water has significantly reduced, stirring occasionally.
While the apples cook, make the dough. Chop the butter into small pieces. Then, in a large bowl, combine the butter, flour, salt, and sugar with a pastry blender or fingertips until you have clumps of dough. Add about ¼-½ cup of water to the dough, and mix to form a clump of smooth, slightly sticky dough. Roll out the dough on a cutting board until about ½ an inch thick. Cut in half.
Preheat your oven to 400 F. Grease a small baking pan – 8×8 works fine. Cover the bottom with a light coat of brown sugar and cinnamon.
Let the apple mixture cool a bit after cooking. Meanwhile, take half the dough and cover the bottom of the pan with it.
Now, spoon the apple mixture – draining out remaining water – over the dough. Cover the apple mixture with the other half of the dough.
Bake for twenty minutes, or until the dough has browned nicely. Serve with ice cream or custard. The bottom should be caramelized!